The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

On WileńskaPosted on 26th March, 2010.

These old tenements on Wileńska give some clue to life in a previous century. These are far older and in worse condition than the classically styled building opposite, which was built as premises for the Polish National Railway Company in 1928-31. These tenements were built to house 19th century railway and  factory workers, and a large Jewish community. The only addition of modernity, an electric gate at the entrance to the inner courtyard is not functional, hanging open. Some courtyards are well tended, have vegetation, flowers, small trees, a shrine to Mary. This courtyard is not like this, deserted and crumbling, devoid of any features except a blackened tree in patch of mud in the middle and a hole in the ground, which may have once been a well. The gateway to this is thoroughly graffitied. The wooden boards of the stairs (an original feature) are heavily worn, on the lowest floors shaped into a deep concave from the decades of feet passing up and down. Something has been on fire recently, a strong smell of charred wood. The stair banisters still retain an ancient varnish and green paint, as do the walls, though much discoloured with age and the cold. The electricity is not working on the stairs. We walk cautiously up and up.

A– answers the door and welcomes us. He is renovating one apartment here. It has a double door, one opening outward and one inward, set in a metal frame. We step into a small square hallway. On the right, a white tiled toilet, on the left a kitchen, which has a bath tucked into the corner, opposite the stove and sink. In front of us, two narrow high ceilinged rooms, which were once larger one with two windows overlooking the courtyard, but have been divided by a false wall at some time in the past. The apartment isn’t even 30 square metres, enough for a family in those times. His father used to live here. It’s leased from the city council, but the original ownership is unclear.  It’s a little complicated, he says, complicated enough that it is unlikely he would consider buying such a place. He is thinking of maybe moving the fake wall, to give more space at the farther end, the window there giving the most daylight. The kitchen window is overshadowed by the stairwell, in dimness all day, and the second window along partly so. He is thinking about how to make a bathroom by utilising the hallway next to the toilet, in order to make the kitchen a more convivial space, a place for gathering at a party. His family recommend that he spends little on renovation – if and when he moves the city council will require him to return it to its original layout.

He has spent days, weeks here, rubbing down the walls, laboriously removing the old flaking paint (an orange and magenta colour). He has applied the first coat of white, but perhaps a little too soon. It is not spring and the walls retain their cold and damp, so the paint has not taken in places. The apartment has no heating, other than portable electric radiators. He needed to keep one on in the kitchen to stop the pipes from freezing. He is working to a deadline – soon, a friend from the Ukraine is coming to stay for some months. He hopes to make some sense of it soon, to live there a while to get a better feel of how best to proceed, to build a wardrobe here, or make a new corridor there.

As we leave, on the ground floor, a little girl is leaning out of her kitchen window, looking at the bare courtyard, singing a song like a bird, while her mother fries something on the stove. The snow has gone. There has been a heavy downpour of rain and the dark grey sky high above holds the promise of a further storm.

finally, more snowPosted on 18th March, 2010.

The last snowfall overnight shuts the airport. For a few more days, winter is prolonged and a drop of Wiśniówka to warm you up is welcomed. By the end of the week, the snow thaws, receding to dirty drifts. The air warms slightly, enough that tables and chairs appear outside the cafes again. A few figures sit on the new Chopin benches installed near the Kino Kultura, listening to the melody that emanate from beneath them. Though people are willing the winter away some pockets of snow persist beneath the Palace under the Tin Roof. On the cobbled path that leads down from the side of St. Anne’s church to Mariensztat, the snow has receded to reveal fresh dog turds and dozens of empty half-litre bottles of Żołądkowa Gorzka. This then is the chosen tipple of the late night dog walkers. We walk down under the bridge where the tourist buses park and past the palace arcades, which have been renovated and are open to the public. We walk back up a steep lane which is named after Piotr Antoni Steinkeller, an early 19th century industrial entrepreneur. She points to one side and says, We call this Muck Hill (Gnojna Góra), because it was the first dumping site in the city. At the summit of Muck Hill, there is a viewing terrace where people gather in the sunshine, looking out over several car parks and the highway that runs along the riverside, beyond that the other side, the natural bank, cloaked with woods.  Praga behind these, the two spires of St. Florian’s Cathedral are visible. They should make more of the waterfront. They could establish a beach here, on the other side, and take care of it. Many people stay in the city in the summer and they would use it, I think. There were some attempts to open up the waterfront, with the establishment of bars along the river terraces, but they quickly became home to skinheads and marred by violence and so were closed down again. There was once a beach further down, at Saska Kempa, popular in the 1930’s, but it no longer exists. We look at the cars, the slowing flowing river, and walk up to the city walls. In the Old Town, windows are opening to let in the promise of spring and people promenade along the restored ramparts and below them, behind Mostowa Street, some residents begin to tend to their small patch of garden.

Vodka NewsPosted on 1st March, 2010.

Alcoholic Russian Chimpanzee (named Zhora) Off to Rehab.